Ramzan Kadyrov’s TikTok brigade seeks to replace Wagner in Ukraine

Ramzan Kadyrov’s TikTok brigade seeks to replace Wagner in Ukraine

In the aftermath of a failed insurgency in Russia, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov presents himself as a warlord ready to do battle for Vladimir Putin.

But unlike the Wagner paramilitary group, which Moscow is now seeking to disband, the Chechen special forces have developed a reputation as “TikTok fighters” more concerned with their appearance on social media than with successes on the battlefield.

In the aftermath of the revolt by rival warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin, Kadyrov has sought to stress his continuing close ties with Putin, posting a selfie with the Russian president on his Telegram channel on Wednesday and boasting of their meeting the day before. However, his own army’s record raised questions as to whether Chechen fighters would be able to provide the Russian army with support equal to that of Wagner.

Hours after Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, Kadyrov’s brigade posted a video on Telegram showing its troops dramatically patrolling a deserted bridge, dressed from head-to-toe in camouflage and armed with automatic rifles.

“Whoever they are, whoever they are, we will bury these traitors to the Motherland and do any job assigned to us,” shouts one of Kadyrov’s fighters, gesturing to the camera with his thumb.

However, there was one problem with the footage: it appears to have been filmed during sunset in Moscow on Saturday—after Prigozhin’s rebellion had already ended—and in Kostroma—a city the Wagner fighters had never approached during the uprising.

Screenshot from a video of Kadyrov’s battalion patrolling a bridge

Kadyrov has ruled the restive republic of Chechnya since 2007, and his fighters are already active in Ukraine. Since joining the fight there in February 2022, Kadyrov, an early adopter on Instagram, and his fellow fighters have been prolific in their music video-style social media posts, which tend to be montages of fighters parading around in military uniform — often with a bit of streamers. from any fight.

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The actual military successes of the guerrillas were far fewer in number.

“The Chechen forces are presenting an image of being very strong, looking very dangerous with their tools and equipment,” said Alex Kokcharov, a Russia-focused risk analyst. “On the battlefield in Ukraine, we haven’t seen Chechen forces make a huge impact, especially along the front lines.”

He said Chechen forces were clearly present in parts of Ukraine that were already under Russian control. He added that, by contrast, the Wagner fighters led by Prigozhin made some real military gains during their time on the ground, helping Russia take over the city of Bakhmut, for example.

Russian and Chechen soldiers in the destroyed neighborhood of Mariupol
Soldiers in a destroyed neighborhood in Mariupol © Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Images / Reuters

It wasn’t always this way. When Russia launched its all-out war in Ukraine in February 2022, Kadyrov sent several Chechen military units to the front line where they were expected to play a pivotal role in Moscow’s ultimately failed plan to capture Kiev.

But Emil Aslan, a specialist in Caucasian affairs and professor of security studies at Charles University in Prague, said the units suffered heavy losses soon after the war began, prompting Kadyrov to rethink the involvement of his forces.

He understood that he would lose a lot of his people. Kadyrov relied on legions of experienced fighters to maintain his political standing at home, Aslan said.

To survive, Kadyrov needs two things: Putin’s support and the tenacity of his personal army. Since then, it has been a bit of a gambit between showing that he is deploying the forces he would sacrifice for the national leader, Vladimir Putin. . . On the other hand, trying to save the lives of the most experienced Kadyrovtsy, Aslan said, referring to the elite fighters who make up Kadyrov’s personal army.

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The spunky, bearded leader has retained power in Chechnya thanks to his close political alliance with Putin, who has showered the region with federal funds and helped Kadyrov maintain his long rule.

The relationship also allowed Kadyrov to build his own army of mercenaries, who have been accused of committing war atrocities in Ukraine, as well as torturing and killing Kadyrov’s domestic opponents and critics.

In his relationship with Putin, Kadyrov is unrivaled — until the appearance of Prigozhin and his rival mercenary special forces. While Kadyrov has taken the side of Prigozhin in some of his criticisms of Russia’s top military officers, the two have also feuded on social media, striking repeated swipes at each other.

On Saturday, as Prigozhin’s rebellion spread, Kadyrov took to Telegram to denounce the Wagner leader, accusing Prigozhin of “vile treason”.

“I have repeatedly warned that war is not the time to express personal grievances,” Kadyrov said. “We have a commander-in-chief, elected by the people, who knows the whole situation to the smallest detail better than any strategist.”

Apti Alaudinov, commander of Kadyrov’s Akhmat Battalion, said his fighters were deployed to Rostov to fend off rebellion and were 500 to 700 meters away from Wagner’s fighters.

Alaudinov said many Chechen fighters did not travel to Rostov because they were “responsible” for controlling the front lines in Ukraine. He claimed that the Russian Defense Ministry had specifically asked Chechen forces “not to engage in any fighting because there was hope that everything would be resolved peacefully”.

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However, some military analysts remain skeptical. “He appears [Kadyrov’s forces] “They were biding their time to see what happens next,” said Samuel Bendett, associate senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Nobody really wanted to stand up to Prigozhin’s forces this past weekend, except for those few planes and helicopters that were shot down.”

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